Abject failure, catastrophe, disaster beyond repair, calamitous. All over exaggerations heard about the current problems facing the England national team following their disappointing exit from Euro 2016. Yes, it was a surprising exit at the hands of Iceland, but one that truthfully those closest to the game would know was coming for some time. It all started during the qualifying campaign. England qualified for France fairly convincingly, and with little effort, which ultimately ended up being their downfall. With no real competitive games as such in two years (with the exception of Switzerland), England was on auto pilot for too long. When manager Roy Hodgson did retake the controls in the few months in the run up to the tournament, it was as if he had forgotten exactly how to fly and was hastily retraining himself. A series of pointless international friendlies did nothing to convince the watching spectators that lifting the trophy in July would be a possibility. Instead those games only served to confuse the fans and media with former England winger confessing that he couldn’t work out what system England were playing and what the general plan was. These experimental games only seemed to serve the purpose of giving players like Danny Drinkwater and Andros Townsend false hope that they might squeeze on to the flight to France. In the end, neither did, and for their own reputations sake it’s probably a good thing.
During the tournament England played a strong possession game which appeared to please Hodgson and the always animated Gary Neville. But possession without purpose leads to nothing and England made qualification from the group look extremely difficult for themselves. Hodgson, to be fair, did not help England’s chances when he made some strange choices, including shoehorning Wayne Rooney into the team as a midfielder so he could compensate for picking four other strikers in the squad of 23. His decision making in the run up to the tournament and throughout was poor; selecting a barely fit Jack Wilshire ahead of Drinkwater or the impressive Mark Noble of West Ham, for example. Similarly, putting his top marksman Harry Kane on all free kicks and corner kicks was so baffling even Kane probably didn’t understand why. Finally, his lack of a plan B on several occasions costs his side more than just three valuable points and potentially a fairly good shot at winning a relatively poor tournament outright.
In the end, Hodgson fell on his sword resigning moments after the defeat at the hands of Iceland in the last 16. Almost instantaneously debates began over who should take over – Englishman or foreign, young or old. Sam Allardyce, Jurgen Klinsmann, Roberto Mancini, Arsene Wenger, Eddie Howe, Glenn Hoddle and strangely Steve Bruce were all linked with the position with Big Sam the clear bookies favourite as the search got underway. Leading the recruitment process is FA chief executive Martin Glenn (who candidly admitted that he knows nothing about football) so would be seeking out the advice of others in order to make an informed decision. In the end, a three man panel of Glenn, FA technical director Dan Ashworth and FA vice chairman David Gill will pick the 18th manager of England who will lead the team through the qualifying campaign for Russia 2018. However, as usual, the discussion around who they should appoint is focused on what type of manager they want to bring in, rather than the question that needs to be answered: what style or identity should the England national team have? That question more than any other will dictate who the right man (or woman) for the job should be. It’s an approach used by other nations during their selection process and was integral to the decision of the RFU (Rugby Football Union) to appoint Australian Eddie Jones to the position of head coach of the England Rugby team, a move that has already proved to be the right one.
Answering that question however may be the difficult part. England historically has relied on big name players at the heart of their team with a formation developed around them, most of the time unsuccessfully. Nine times out of ten England breezes through qualifying for major tournaments creating a false sense of security that the formation is working. However it’s worth noting that England generally avoids the harder teams in the qualifying group draws due to their regular high positioning in the FIFA World rankings. As a result, it’s only at the tournament itself when England faces tougher oppositions that problems with the choice of formation occurs, usually leading to an exit. The lack of a plan B often also stems from this with the belief that plan A is good enough to work. Turning this on its head and starting first with the style or identity that England want to have will help define the formational options and the manager capable of making it work. For example, if England decided to follow Germany’s lead in playing a high pressing possession game then someone like Jurgen Klinsmann would make more sense than Sam Allardyce. It’s not necessarily that the Sunderland manager doesn’t know how to play a high pressing game but his experiences to date indicate that his preferences are towards other styles. If however England chose to play like Iceland as a tough to break down unit who are more rigid than fluid in nature, then Sam becomes one of the stand out candidates. Fundamentally the FA trio must focus less on Russia and more on the long term future of the national team. Build the foundations now to create long term success rather than constructing a half-baked solution that will need repairing or scrapping in four years time.
Italy’s success at this year’s Euros are an indication of how effective this approach can be. The Italians were not blessed with the most talented squad going into the tournament with several Italian journalists calling it the worst team in fifty years. But in manager Antonio Conte they had a coach who understood the style that Italy wanted to play and built a formation around that. The players he then selected fit into this system rather than the other way around (which is what England did). When PSG’s Marco Veratti dropped out due to injury, Conte turned to Lazio’s Marco Parolo; a similar type of player who can drop straight into the gap left by Veratti rather than reworking his system to accommodate a different type of player. The entire squad knew the system, how they intended to play and what their role was leading Italy to a quarter final spot. England must learn from past mistakes, define their style and approach going forward. Once they have done this, only then can they confidently choose a manager who can be most effective in executing against that, regardless of who that is and where they come from.